Brad Parks is the author of Faces of the Gone (St. Martin's Press), the first in the Carter Ross mystery series. Parks is a former staff writer at the Washington Post and the (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger.
Every author has that story of a book signing that becomes an unqualified disaster--the one whose only attendees are an embarrassed writer, a forlorn store owner and a towering stack of hardcover books that never gets smaller. As I started out Sunday, I felt certain it was about to be my turn.
This was Day Four of the book tour for my debut novel, Faces of the Gone. The weather in New Jersey was miserable with strong chance of disgusting: 34 degrees and driving rain.
Then my car wouldn't start. The steering wheel on my 1995 Honda Civic had somehow locked, preventing me from turning the ignition.
No problem. I had left myself an extra half-hour to reach my first stop, Mendham Books, out in Mendham, N.J. I was calm. Summoning all my knowledge of automobile repair, which would fit nicely in a semi-used Tic-Tac container, I began yanking on the wheel, forcing the key and making desperate moaning noises.
Strangely, this didn't work.
I imagined the consequences of my no-show: the disappointment among the few (if any) fans who showed up, the irate store owner, the blackball next to my name in the close-knit community of independent booksellers. So I returned to my dispassionate analysis of the situation--which, to the uninitiated, might have looked like a grown man getting hysterical.
Finally, after 20 minutes of increasingly undignified struggle, the car started and I tore out of the driveway. As I climbed First Watchung Mountain toward Mendham, the temperature dipped and the road grew treacherous. I passed my first accident. Then my second. Then my third. The radio reported parts of Interstate 287 had been closed due to black ice.
When I passed my fourth accident--an SUV flipped over on its roof--I finally began questioning my sanity. A 1995 Honda Civic is not known for being among the most sure-footed vehicles, especially when it has balding tires and a front end in serious need of alignment. And here I was, slipping up and down the hills of Morris County out of some misguided sense that my four-day-old perfect attendance record needed to be preserved.
And for what? People barely show up for little-known debut authors in ideal conditions, much less on days where there are at least a dozen perfectly good excuses to stay home.
But then I reminded myself of my Ultimate Fear. I knew that if my first book tanked, the long and successful career I dreamed of building--the one where I would start small but engender a large and loyal following for the beloved Carter Ross mystery series--would end abruptly. Since signing a two-book contract with St. Martin's Press/Minotaur in July 2008, a good portion of my actions have been motivated by that fear.
The marketing strategy that resulted, hemmed though it was by limited resources, was two-pronged. Part One was to reach hardcore mystery enthusiasts via the Internet, which I primarily did through a series of online interviews and guest blogs, everything from "How My Kids Made Me a Better Writer" to "Ten Things Crime Fiction Writers Can Learn from Paris Hilton."
Part Two involved tire rubber and shoe leather: I would focus the majority of my in-person appearances around northern New Jersey, where the book is set and where I spent 10 years as a reporter with the (Newark) Star-Ledger. A friend of mine, a fabulous and tenacious former Melville House editor named Becky Kraemer, volunteered to help with publicity, and she had gotten me placed with a variety of hyperlocal blogs like Patch.com and Baristanet, in addition to local newspapers large and small, and even local video.
Early on, the tour had been fantastic. We kicked off at the Newark Public Library, which put on a lovely event in its grandest room, Centennial Hall. Next it was Words Bookstore in Maplewood, where we filled every available seat and then some. (Before moving to Virginia for my wife's job, we lived in Maplewood, and therefore I had many former neighbors to guilt into attending.) Saturday was a scorched-earth tour of meet-and-greets at local independents, including Town Bookstore in Westfield, Watchung Books in Montclair and Sages Pages in Madison, all of which went well.
But Mendham, clearly, was going to be my Waterloo. I arrived with five minutes to spare, grabbed my Faces of the Gone bookmarks, and dashed through a downpour from my car to the storefront.
Upon stepping inside, I immediately received a call from a friend saying she wouldn't be able to make it: even if she could get down her driveway, she'd never be able to get back up.
The store was all but empty. In an attempt at encouragement, owner Tom Williams told me about the rainy day when Garrison Keillor came to his store and still managed to fill it. And I'm thinking, That's great, but Garrison Keillor has invented fictional ice fishing tournaments that are more famous than me.
I was quite sure I was going to spend the next hour staring at my fingernails while the owner pondered how long he would have to wait before returning all of my unsold books to St. Martin's, which would then begin formulating plans to give my second book a print run of 150.
Then Kate Lincoln walked through the door.
I had never met Kate before that moment. But now I know she's a 53-year-old homeopath and aspiring writer from nearby Bernardsville. She had heard about Faces of the Gone through a crime fiction blog called the Rap Sheet. A former journalist, too, she was drawn to a story where the protagonist is an investigative newspaper reporter. She studied my website and decided I was worth meeting. As I was sliding my way toward Mendham Books, she had departed her house over her husband's objections and made her own harrowing journey.
"I have so many questions for you," she announced as we introduced ourselves.
We talked about writing (hers and mine), newspapers, books and a host of other topics. She said she doesn't purchase many hardcover books and viewed each one as an investment in the author--a buying decision she makes only after careful consideration. A half-hour later, she walked out of the store with a signed, personalized copy of Faces of the Gone.
The next day I heard from Kate, telling me about specific passages of the book she enjoyed. My story was clearly coming alive in her mind, and as a writer it felt immensely gratifying. It reminded me of something that, in all my fretting over a blog tour and a publicity campaign (and, yes, even a non-starting Honda) I had allowed myself to forget: all of us in this business, whether we're authors, librarians, booksellers or publishers, got into this game to help forge that magical connection between writer and reader.
And on one slushy Sunday in New Jersey, I made one.